And Now For Something Completely Different

My daughter has been very slow to start talking, which is both worrying and deeply frustrating. It’s getting to the point where we need to make an appointment to take her to a specialist to try to find out what the problem is.

And that makes me think about language barriers. My little ninja (she’s seriously stealthy and agile for a two-year-old) woke up in the middle of the night last night and had shrieking hysterics when put back into bed… and I don’t know why. She can’t tell me. I don’t know if she had a scary nightmare, or if she had a stomach ache, or if she’s just upset because she has the flu. I can try assorted things – drink of milk, bottle of chilled water, cuddles, songs, letting her curl up in our bed instead of her own – but they’re semi-informed guesses at best.

Language differences are often handwaved in fiction. Universal translators are a science-fiction staple, ‘common’ or ‘trade-talk’ ditto in fantasy. Magic can ease a linguistic barrier, or maybe a babelfish in the ear.

Which bugs me, a little. Language is the medium in which novels communicate and yet they hand-wave and simplify it to the point of  non-existence. I really think characters can handle a little in the way of basic linguistic inconvenience. It also ignores the fact that even now, let alone in the days before pocket dictionaries, people often know more than one language, especially if they’re likely to need to. Lady Jane Grey famously spoke and wrote French, Greek, Italian and Latin fluently, in addition to English, and she was still in her teens when she died. There is no reason why characters in high fantasy shouldn’t speak multiple languages… even a Farmboy Protagonist may have picked up a few words here and there, if he happens to have grown up near a trade-route. In fact, the idea that everyone in a fantasy world speaks the same language is orders of magnitude less likely than Farmboy Protagonist happening to have happened on a few words of Exotic Foreign.

I’ll concede that in science fiction, this is harder. A mechanical translator is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that not only are there whole worlds full of new languages that possibly haven’t been encountered before, but that a humanoid vocalizing mechanism probably isn’t going to be up to producing all of them. Even so, it would be nice to at least see some token difficulties.

One of my favourite depictions of this is in the beginning of the movie ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, in which the poet Ahmed ibn Fadlan learns to speak Norse over the course of a journey, by listening to the men around him talking. Words slowly become clear, and eventually he’s able to communicate, though his use of grammar is noticeably different, which I thought was a nice touch. (Yes, I know it’s a terribly cheesy movie. I like it anyway.) David Weber in his War God series does acknowledge the existence of different languages, and gets around the problem tidily enough by having his protagonist being a somewhat well-educated noble, the son of a prince, who like Jane Grey has learned multiple languages as a matter of course. He doesn’t speak them all perfectly, but he can get by.

In science fiction, the best example that leaps to mind is a very old book called ‘The Dancing Meteorite’, by Anne Mason. I loved this book when I was younger, and as an adult I hunted down a second-hand copy so I could have it forever. It features a young ‘e-comm’ xenolinguist, who runs into trouble several times not only because learning multiple alien languages – some of which are nigh-impossible for a human to produce the sounds for – takes up all her time, isolating her from her peers, but because it takes up all her study time. She doesn’t have enough scientific grounding to know that a meteorite shouldn’t change direction spontaneously, let alone all the other information her peers think is elementary. Anne Mason showed very clearly what a huge barrier language can be, including having Kira explaining to the members of her exploratory team when they protest that handling languages is her job, not theirs, that they will all be in different parts of the alien ship they hope to travel on, and that she will only be able to translate for one of them at a time, and in addition is required to do her own work as well as acting as the diplomat for the team and suck it up and learn your shit, princesses. Not that she says that, but oh, it would have been delightful if she had.

I know it’s tempting to insert a convenient lingua franca into fiction, so that you don’t have to waste time on explanations or translations, but I do think it’s something that should be given real thought, not just brushed off. Language barriers are so utterly frustrating, they make a wonderful source of tension in a plot – and one that doesn’t require willful misunderstandings or being Stupid-In-Service-To-The-Plot. I would love to see a fantasy novel in which the group of travellers Brought Together By Fate don’t all speak the same language, and have to rely on those members who know both or all three languages to relay information. The possibilities for complications just abound! And when The Group Gets Separated, as it traditionally does, well, then things could get really interesting.

Does that story already exist? If it does, please let me know!

EDIT: If anyone is wondering, the trouble with the Tiny Ninja was an ear infection. We have antibiotics for it, and she’s much happier already.

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8 thoughts on “And Now For Something Completely Different

  1. In The Pride of Chanur by CJ Cherryth the cat-aliens have a universal translator machine but it first has to be primed with at least the basics of any new language, and a lot of time is devoted to the human character studying pictures on a screen and programming in his words for them, and meanwhile communicating by pushing buttons with reasonably self-explanatory pictograms on them. THere’s a race in it with five brains and a five-part matrix speech-pattern.

    • Ooh, I like the sound of that. I should check it out. (Her name sounds familiar, but I don’t know if it’s because I’ve read her stuff before or just seen it around – you know me and names) I am somewhat reminded of the Sulamids – one of the better non-hominid Star Trek aliens, to my mind. – who I’ve always liked.

  2. It is for this reason I highly recommend an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok.” (A crucial scene can be found here.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukMNfTnI5M8

    In this episode the Enterprise re-open dialogue with a race who’ve in the last hundred years discovered interstellar travel. However, despite having functioning electronic translators they are unable to make sense of the language of this species, and communication has for the last century been at a stand-still. I think you’ll get a lot out of this story, Salmon. 😀

  3. I’ll have to check out The Dancing Meteorite; it sounds good! I think Orson Scott Card does a really good job of dealing with cross-species language barriers in the Ender series, especially in Speaker for the Dead. Also in the sci-fi section, you may want to check out The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It’s a really fascinating look at the complete foreignness involved in first contact with an alien species (and the sequel is really good too!). I can’t think of a high fantasy novel with similar barriers, though; let us know if you find one! I’m writing urban fantasy, but I plan to set book two of my series in France. My characters speak only english, except for the one who had a few French classes in high school—conveniently, his level of confort with the language is exactly equivalent to my own. Writing the language barrier should be interesting!

    • The Dancing Meteorite is long out of print, which is a shame, but if you can track it down it’s one of my absolute favourites for YA sci-fi. It has a lot to say about empathy, and how vital understanding *why* someone does something can be.

  4. Woohoo!! I’m not sure if my excitement comes across correctly in writing, but this post definitely made my day. I was just thinking about the possibility of a fantasy language barrier this morning, and it’s just fantastic to get some confirmation that I’m not a nutter! Thanks for the post, and best of wishes to you and your daughter.

    • Not a nutter, a visionary! Seriously, given how many languages there are on our own planet – and how many dialects of said languages there are, too! – expecting a whole fantasy world to get by with two or three is a little silly. Especially if you’re going with medieval fantasy and its fairly hard-core limitations on travel. Nobody is going to unify a planet on horseback, they’d die of old age trying!

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